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WASHINGTON — The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell for the sixth straight week as the U.S. economy, held back for months by the coronavirus pandemic, reopens rapidly.

Nearly 3.5 million people were receiving traditional state unemployment benefits the week of May 29, down by 258,000 from 3.8 million the week before.

Businesses are reopening rapidly as the rollout of vaccines allows Americans to feel more comfortable returning to restaurants, bars and shops. The Labor Department reported Tuesday that job openings hit a record 9.3 million in April. Layoffs dropped to 1.4 million, lowest in records dating back to 2000; 4 million quit their jobs in April, another record and a sign that they are confident enough in their prospects to try something new.

"As life normalizes and the service sector continues to gain momentum, we expect initial jobless claims to continue to trend lower,″ said Joshua Shapiro, chief U.S. economist at the economic and financial consulting firm Maria Fiorini Ramirez, Inc.

In May, the U.S. economy generated 559,000 new jobs, and the unemployment rate dropped to 5.8% from 6.1% in April. Many economists expected to see even faster job growth. The United States is still short 7.6 million jobs from where it stood in February 2020.

But employers are posting vacancies faster than would-be applicants can fill them. Many Americans are contending with health and childcare issues related to COVID-19 and with career uncertainty after the coronavirus recession wiped out many jobs for good. Some are taking their time looking for work because expanded federal jobless benefits pay more than their old jobs.

Many states are scheduled to begin dropping the federal benefits this month. Altogether, 15.3 million people were receiving some type of jobless aid the week of May 22; a year earlier, the number exceeded 30 million.

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In a story June 10, 2021, about federal jobs data, The Associated Press erroneously reported that the U.S. economy generated 559,000 million jobs in May. The correct figure for May is 559,000 jobs, the word 'million' is extraneous.